Saturday, February 28, 2009

Battle for Haditha - DVD Introduction

Battle for Haditha (2007) is Nick Broomfield’s concise, lucid, devastating depiction of the Haditha massacre. If you follow the news, you know the basic facts: November, 19, 2005; IED; one Marine killed and two wounded; twenty-four Iraqi men, women, and children killed in response to fear, vengeance, and the inscrutable factors that motivate men under fire.

The film is divided into two main acts: November 18th and November 19th, with a brief resolution showing the repercussions. The first act depicts the day before the massacre and follows the soldiers involved; the Iraqi families who were victims; and the Iraqi insurgents who buried the bomb and set it off.

The Marines begin their day, November 18th, with what has turned into a cliché of the modern war film: American soldiers cruising along (often in helicopters – humvees, in this case) to the pounding, ear-splitting din of heavy metal. We also get the inevitable horsing around, but this is accompanied by sobering talking-head declarations of fears and confusions connected with the frustrating war in Iraq involving an unclear enemy living amidst non-combatants. As in the Vietnam War, the soldiers state how a woman or even a child, strapped with a bomb or concealing a weapon, can be a combatant. We meet the specific Marines who crew the humvee that will meet destruction on the 19th, but the film focuses on Corporal Ramirez, played by Elliot Ruiz, who delivers a performance that is engaging, poignant, and naturalistic, as he expresses his feelings of dread and disgust for the situation in Iraq.

We also follow the insurgents – who seem almost comically inept to the point that you wonder about their motivations. One is an overweight father with little children. His friend and accomplice is a dim-witted young man who works in a video store. Next to the the Al Qaeda, who are orthodox and fanatical, more physically fit and tough looking, the gray-haired man and his young friend look like clowns. Nevertheless, they are taught how to rig a cell phone to a bomb and their adventures, as they smuggle the bomb through the city and a roadblock to where they bury it, provide tense moments.

The sequences that set this film apart from other films and TV shows about the war in Iraq are the ones that follow the Iraqi family members through their day’s errands and routines. The camera following these characters invites us into their lives and culture. We see women buying live chickens to be served up for a circumcision party that evening. We see an old man reading the Koran and later lounging around with his grandson, their bare feet together as they nap. Some sequences are like lucid depictions of customs in National Geographic documentary; we see the circumcision and subsequent celebration that includes jubilation, dancing, singing, and eating. Other sequences are touchingly intimate. A pregnant mother (Yasmine Hanani), expresses her fear that her husband won’t find her attractive when she is hugely pregnant, but her husband affectionately convinces her that he will.

Since we know what will happen on the 19th, the second major act immediately carries a heavily ominous tone. As the Iraqi men, women, and children rise to the new day and go about their routines, the Marines get ready for their day’s patrol. I will say little here about what unfolds after the last humvee in the column is ripped apart by the explosion though I will say that the ensuing sequences are tautly directed and gut-wrenchingly disturbing in many ways.

What happens and why it happens are matters that I cannot judge. War is most horrible when its effects touch the innocent and the young, but I am in no position to judge the actions of young men, sometimes unwillingly placed in harm’s way, who respond to factors and emotions that are beyond my experience. What I like most about Battle for Haditha is that it doesn’t leave the viewer with a simple explanation, nor does it suggest exoneration for those involved. The film lets you come to your own conclusions as it compellingly draws a factual illustration of a chain of mercilessly inexorable events.


Fox said...

Nice write-up, and I agree with you that the down-the-middle "lack of a simple explanation" is refreshing about Battle for Haditha.

But I disagree with you about the early soldiers-in-the-humvee scenes as being "cliche". I didn't think you were saying that in a negative way, but I thought those were refreshing in the way they depicted younge American men fighting in a foreign country. I like their conversations, their mannerisms, their low-brow kidding with each other. It felt "real". I especially liked the moment when one of the soldiers accidentally bumps his gun up against a passing truck. It gave me that feeling of the soldiers - while strong, and competent - still have everyday flubs b/c they are so young and easily distracted by the situation they are in.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment.

You must admit we've seen a lot of modern war films that start with the men cruising to the pounding rock music, so I kind of chuckle when a war movie starts that way. But I should have added that as far as that sort of scene goes, this one was natural and believable. I agree - it felt real - even when the one soldier moons the guys in the other humvee.

As for the scene in which the soldier bumps the gun up against the truck - that was one of the best details in the whole movie. It was very believable. It shows that they ARE very young - and that their training has been packed into a relatively short time - and it wasn't so long ago that they were inexperienced civilians.

So far, Battle for Haditha is my favorite film about post-9/11 Americans at war.

Jason Bellamy said...

I just watched this tonight. I have mixed emotions about it. At its worst, the soldier antics are as cliche as your review suggests. At its best, the film is as you and Fox describe above -- "real" and showcasing the youth of the soldiers.

It's a shame that so many of the complex issues had to be talked out so deliberately. (It doesn't help that half of the dialogue is in subtitles, only furthering the sense that we're getting a screenplay instead of natural conversation.) In that way, "Haditha" is a little too "Crash" like for me.

But, like "Crash," it manages to get multiple conflicting and often unresolvable viewpoints on the table in a short amount of time. That's what's great about both films -- even if I wouldn't want all films to be this way.

To the credit of "Haditha" I saw nothing but victims and villains -- often in the same gaze.

War, this war more than most, just fucks shit up. I don't know any other way to put it.


Richard Bellamy said...

Joannah -
Thanks very much for visiting and reading. I'm really enjoying writing this blog and getting comments. Come back at anytime - I plan to be here.